The Springboks engaged a different gear early in the second half as they recovered from a poor start to reel in a nine-point deficit and score, in terms of how it was achieved, an important morale-boosting 16-12 win over Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. Whatever coach Heyneke Meyer said to his players at halftime last night, it had more impact on the Springbok game than would have been the case had he injected his players with performance-enhancing drugs.
When he went into the shed to talk to his players, Ireland were leading 12-3 and were probably better than that.
Meyer must have been having nightmarish recollections of his team’s non-performance against Argentina in Mendoza during the southern hemisphere season, with his pack simply being outplayed by a more industrious Irish unit.
The only area of forward play where the Boks had any superiority in the early stages was in the lineouts, where they were helped by some poor Irish throwing and communication, plus Eben Etzebeth’s ever improving contesting skills.
LISTLESS AND TIRED
Everywhere else they looked tired, listless and jaded, and just lacked the power that had troubled some of the southern hemisphere teams during the Sanzar season.
But what a transformation immediately after halftime!
The Boks discovered the energy they had been lacking earlier, the forwards underlining just how important they are to the direction of a game.
Suddenly they were in it, and because of that, the Boks were also in it. No – more than just in it; for most of the second half, they dominated.
Ireland were determined enough in the final minutes, and the South Africans just failed to deliver the coup de grace that they frequently threatened, to make it a close finish.
But in reality they were being dominated in the collisions and never looked threatening once Patrick Lambie had put the Boks into the lead for the first time in the match with 25 minutes to go.
Unlike two years ago, when rain fell during the match, this game was played in clear, crisp conditions that verged on biting cold.
And that is the way the South Africans in the capacity crowd at this impressive venue would have felt at the break.
There was no hiding from the ineffectualness of their team’s play up to then.
But afterwards there would have been plenty of warmth flowing, for the second-half performance did make a strong statement.
The Boks scored 13 points without reply during that period, something that looked highly unlikely in what was a completely different game before that.
The day had been a tumultuous one for the Boks, with popular loosehead prop Beast Mtawarira being ruled out five hours before kick-off with heart palpitations.
According to a Saru statement, Mtawarira was released from a Dublin hospital later in the day and was said to be in no danger, but a statement on whether or not he will continue with the tour will be forthcoming from the Bok management over the next 24 hours.
The first-half performance was easily the worst we have seen from the Bok pack without being under physical duress since they failed to pitch in Argentina three months ago (you can’t count the second half of the Nasrec game against the All Blacks as the Boks just shot their bolt in the first 50 minutes and the Kiwis outlasted them).
Perhaps it was down to the non-appearance of Mtawarira. The big Sharks player is an important element in the Bok scrum, and is also considered a talisman when carrying the ball.
CJ van der Linde, his replacement, was part of a World Cup win in 2007, but he has seldom been part of any run-on team, at either international or provincial level in recent times.
The South Africans weren’t helped by the shrill whistle of English referee Wayne Barnes, who awarded penalties at the rate of one every two minutes in the early stages – most of those against the South Africans.
Ireland flyhalf Matt Sexton kicked four penalties in the first half, and missed a sitter just before halftime that would have put his team 12 points up.
EARLY TERRITORIAL DOMINANCE
The only response from the Boks was a kick from Patrick Lambie from close range, and it said something for the territorial dominance of Ireland that the Boks had three kicks at goal and only one of them was from the Irish side of halfway.
The Boks were just completely non-threatening and because of their lack of possession and forward momentum, they were unable to play the game in the right areas of the field.
They weren’t helped either by the yellow-carding of wing JP Pietersen for a dangerous tackle nine minutes before the break.
Technically Barnes was correct, as Pietersen was a fraction early, and Barnes did yellow-card Ireland No 8 Jamie Heaslip when the Boks were applying pressure early in the second half, but Barnes was helped in the Pietersen decision by the baying of the fiercely partisan Dublin crowd.
Not that the real damage was done to the South Africans when Pietersen was off, for most of it had been done before that, with Sexton’s boot keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
The first of his penalties came in the sixth minute and he added another before Lambie drew it back to 6-3.
Talking of Lambie, there was a lot of pressure on the young pivot to produce, but a flyhalf can’t control the game when his forwards are being caned.
So he didn’t have much influence in the first 40 minutes. That was to change dramatically immediately after halftime, however, with the pack finding their gear and Lambie affecting a subtle but devastatingly effective change to the pace of the game in his role as decision-maker and link between forwards and backs.
Suddenly where the Boks had looked toothless before, they made the Irish look vulnerable, and in the four minutes after the restart the Boks hammered away at the Irish line.
Wing Francois Hougaard nearly wriggled over in the left corner and was only just held up, but the pressure was sustained and eventually Ruan Pienaar dived over under the posts after 44 minutes for the only try of the match.
Two more Lambie penalties saw the Boks draw four points clear with 12 minutes to go, and with their territorial dominance by then quite emphatic, as well as their bossing of the collisions, they never looked like giving it away after that.